The Cooperative Movement in Century 21

In 2002 the UN General Assembly recognized that cooperatives “are becoming a major factor of economic and social development,” and urged governments to promote their growth by “utilizing and developing fully the potential and contribution of cooperatives for the attainment of social development goals, in particular the eradication of poverty, the generation of full and productive employment and the enhancement of social integration;... creating a supportive and enabling environment for the development of cooperatives by, inter alia, developing an effective partnership between Governments and the cooperative movement.” Recently the UN declared 2012 to be the International Year of Cooperatives. The people of the world do not care what you call the economic system as long as it works. For the last century ideologists of both capitalism and state socialism have made extravagant claims and promises about the superiority of their economic ideas, but the proof was in the pudding. Neither one was able to bring peace, prosperity, and social equity to the world on a sustainable basis. That overarching goal could not be accomplished by either economic system, because neither was actually geared to bring it about. Social justice requires full employment, while capitalism structures unemployment and marginalization into the very bones of the system. Capitalism privatizes the world, transforms power and property into money, reduces people to labor or marginalized unemployed, disempowers democracy, and crashes periodically with disastrous consequences. State socialism centralizes power in the hands of bureaucrats, planners, and party hacks, disempowers civil society, and rigidifies into a self-perpetuating overly-centralized establishment which inevitably makes monumental social planning blunders. The economics of the 21st century must be based on intense practicality, not false ideology.



The most successful contemporary radical cooperative movement in the US is a local movement spanning the last four decades and led by an inspiring grassroots spirit of revolt: the building occupations of the urban homestead limited equity cooperative movement in New York City.

In the mid-1960s, many New York landlords in low-income neighborhoods abandoned their apartment buildings because they considered them not profitable enough, averaging 38,000 abandoned units a year by the end of the decade. The City foreclosed for non-payment of taxes and serious code violations, and assumed ownership as “landlord of last resort.” In 1969 a group of neighbors on East 102nd Street in Manhattan, mainly Puerto Rican families, took over two buildings by direct action and started rehabilitating them through sweat equity as cooperatives. That touched off a direct action tenant movement in other neighborhoods. In 1970 groups of squatters took over vacant buildings on West 15th, 111th, 122nd streets, and along Columbus Avenue around 87th Street, proclaiming the community’s right to possession of a place to live. The City reacted by evicting most of the squatters, but public outcry resulted in their granting management control of some of the buildings to community organizations for rehabilitation by the tenants themselves. Several cooperative development nonprofits were formed, including the Urban Homestead Assistance Board (UHAB), which became the most effective organization. In 1973, 286 buildings were slated for urban homesteading, but funding obstacles undercut their efforts. Forty-eight of these buildings were actually completed as homesteaded low-income limited-equity co-ops.

In the 1980s New York tenant groups led many squats, taking over abandoned buildings illegally at first and rehabilitating them. By 1981 the City had become the owner by foreclosure of about 8,000 buildings with around 112,000 apartments, 34,000 of the units still occupied. At the urging of housing activist groups, particularly UHAB, the City instituted urban homesteading programs to legally sell the buildings to their squatting tenants for sweat equity and a token payment, with a neighborhood organization or a non-profit development organization often becoming manager during rehabilitation. By 1984, 115 buildings had been bought as limited-equity tenant co-ops under the Tenant Interim Lease Program, with another 92 in process. UHAB provided technical assistance, management training and all-around support. Autonomous groups of squatters continued to take over buildings, with an estimated 500 to 1,000 squatters in 32 buildings on the Lower East Side alone in the 1990s. Hundreds of Latino factory workers and their families squatted in the South Bronx. The City’s response changed with the political winds. Some City administrations curtailed the homestead program and evicted many of the squats, but some squatter groups successfully resisted eviction. In the ‘90s the City renewed its support of tenant homesteading, and by 2002 over 27,000 New York families were living in homesteaded low-income co-ops. Over the last 30 years UHAB has worked to successfully transform over 1,300 buildings into limited equity co-ops, and 42 more buildings are currently in their pipeline containing 1,264 units, most of them in Harlem and the Lower East Side.

The urban homestead movement is based in law on the concepts of squatters rights and homesteading. Homesteading is by permission, usually on government-owned land or land with no legal owner. The homesteader—like the squatter—gains title to the land in exchange for the sweat equity of working it for a certain time period, usually 10 years. In many cases people who start as squatters become homesteaders. Squatters rights and homesteading have been part of US and English common law since very early times, and are deeply embedded in American history. With squatting—legally called “adverse possession”—the squatter takes possession of the land or building without permission of occupancy from the legal owner. Squatters use adverse possession to claim a legal right to land or buildings. The idea is that a person who openly occupies and improves a property for a set amount of time is entitled to ownership, even though that property may have originally not belonged to them. For the first thirty days of occupation, squatters are legally trespassers liable to eviction without cause. During this time squatters are usually discrete about their presence, but open enough to be able to document their occupation. After thirty days, they gain squatters’ rights—or tenants’ rights—and in New York thereafter can only be evicted by a court order. At that time the squatters often openly begin to undertake major renovations or improvements.

The basic concept has been used beyond housing elsewhere in the Americas. The core idea of the Mexican Revolution (1910-17) was “land for those who work it,” and that concept was enshrined in the Mexican Constitution as the ejido system of communal property. The Brazilian Constitution (1988) says that land that remains unproductive should be used for a “larger social function." (18) Brazil’s Landless Workers Movement (MST) used that constitutional right as the legal basis for numerous land occupations. The largest social movement in Latin America today with an estimated 1.5 million members, MST has peacefully occupied unused land since 1985, won land titles for more than 350,000 families in 2,000 settlements, and established about 400 cooperative associations for agricultural production, marketing, services, and credit, as well as constructing houses, schools, and clinics.

This is an excerpt of a blog entry by John Curl

Published Date: 
Sat, 2010-07-10 (All day)
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